According to the National Autistic Society, around 1 in every 100 people have autism.  Some would put that number at a far higher ratio, but either way, these figures would suggest that, as an educational professional, you are likely to come into contact with many children and young people with autism, in your career.

Katie Goodwin is Assistant Headteacher at Abbey Hill School and has experience working across all Key Stages throughout her 20 year career. At Abbey Hill, she oversees the Autism practice, in addition, she provides outreach and training to other settings across the school. In this post, Katie discusses how autistic pupils can be better supported throughout their time in mainstream classrooms.


School is, for some autistic people, a very difficult experience. There are tremendous demands that are placed upon autistic people, that would not even be considered by a ‘neurotypical’ person. School uniform is a prime example. This can be excruciatingly uncomfortable to someone with autism: scratchy labels, stiff shirts and ties, blazers and school shoes. When thinking like this, you can begin to see why someone with autism could be in an agitated state just entering the school building.

As professionals, we are not always going to be able to understand every single person’s own difficulties and triggers, especially in high schools and post-16 settings where you will encounter tens, if not hundreds of different students every day however, having an understanding of autism will mean that ‘crisis’ situations are less likely to occur.

I am currently an Assistant Head of a large special school where we are able to provide expert and bespoke learning for our students, in small classes, with therapeutic programmes. However, I have also been a ‘mainstream’ SENCO in both secondary and primary schools, where I haven’t always had all of these luxuries, but students have still had successful placements, which was because of a whole school strategic SEND vision. This was because of proactive, not reactive, strategic leadership.

Identifying Triggers:

The best lesson I learned, was to understand that an autistic brain literally does not think in the same way that my brain does. This doesn’t mean that the autistic brain is in anyway inferior to mine, in many ways I would say the complete opposite of that, it’s just that my brain works in a more ‘socially expected’ way. I am often told of incidents where I hear the words, ‘there was no trigger’. There is always a trigger, it just might not be apparent to a ‘neurotypical’ brain. What makes you a good practitioner is recognising and removing barriers which, facilitate our young people to be as independent as they can be. This does not mean wrapping them up in cotton wool; the real world is not like that and we would be doing a disservice if this was how we supported them. We need to teach and equip our students to use learned strategies to cope in difficult situations.

The use of TA Support:

As a leader, I have always wanted to use my precious TA commodity as best I can. TAs are an incredible resource but, having the same TA with a student is not always the best use of this resource. Reliance can easily be built up, on both sides. People with autism are renowned for not being keen on change, but change is part of life. We need to introduce change, in a structured, secure and well-prepared way, enabling that young person to build coping strategies; different TAs help with that. Having a velcroed TA, ensuring task completion is not that; schools need to operate in a ‘helicopter’ style. If your TAs know what the areas of difficulty for a student, they are equipped and empowered to help support them and focus on the areas of need. For example, it could be starting a task. They would create a quick task sheet (an underutilised technique) to show the student what they needed to do. Often, this will be numbered, so there is no confusion about where to start. Once the student is going, the TA will help someone else and come back to ‘check in’ with the student. This means that other students can ‘piggy back’ on the support, but it’s also teaching the student to become more independent. As a teacher, it is easier for me to then work with the student, as the TA isn’t by their side all of the time. As our students progress through the school, we aim to reduce the level of support. Our support is like a ball of bubble wrap, surrounding the student. When they first arrive, this is full and supportive but, over time, we either pop the bubbles or slowly deflate them, so when the student leaves us, they are as independent as they can be at that point.

Sometimes 1:1 is the best use of support; Autism Awareness is a prime example. We cannot assume that the students understand that they have autism or know what it means to them; they won’t necessarily realise that what they think &/or feel is different to other people. By using these sessions, along with sensory check lists, you can build up a better picture of how best to support the student but, more importantly, that student begins to understand their own thoughts and behaviours more, so strategies can be introduced and implemented.

Education and Re-education is key:

There are times when you need a very thick skin when working closely with autistic people. There have been many times when I have received a comment, which would be deemed hurtful and ‘inappropriate’, albeit factual; new hairstyles never go down well! What we all need to remember is that the student is not (always) meaning to be rude. Social complexities are often difficult for an autistic person. In many ways, this honesty is an admirable quality but, it isn’t always the right time or place. Adults need to role model a more appropriate response, to help the student understand and learn from the interaction.

More serious incidents need to be dealt with in a similar fashion. Raising your voice and issuing consequences doesn’t directly or explicitly address the issue, therefore not solving the presented behaviour. Ensure that you use instructional language and form an instruction as a question. The person will not always know the subtle difference and this can lead to quick escalation. In this situation, it’s likely the student (and possibly you) are in a highly agitated state and so not the best time to have these conversations. Whatever needs to be said, use as little language as possible and then move away whilst it’s processed. Writing it down would also allow the student to fully process what you say. A very wise person once said to me, ‘Think dog!’ If you give instructions in the way that you would a dog, in short, simple language, this is easier to understand than if you use superfluous language. Better still, to have the desired effect, you need to conduct this post-incident learning hours, days or even weeks later, choosing your timing well and making reasonable adjustments in how you do it. To have the desired effect, you need to have some form of post-incident learning, after the event, when all parties are calm. As the technique describes, it needs to be ‘post’ the incident. This could be hours, days or even weeks later. I am not saying that these negative &/or inappropriate behaviours shouldn’t be addressed, far from it, but you need to pick your timing well and make reasonable adjustments in how you do it. Ultimately your goal is for the undesired behaviour to change and for that to happen, impactful education not reprimand needs to occur.

As well as this, you need to pick your language carefully. No matter how good a student’s everyday oral language and communication seems to be, the ability to process language will reduce significantly when agitated. It is because of this, that we need to restrict our language when a situation occurs. Adults also need to ensure that instructional language is used and not to form an instruction as a question. This will often lead to a very quick escalation as, with a question, the student will have the option to outright ‘defy’ the adult, leading them to potentially issue an ultimatum, which can then lead to severe consequences if the student doesn’t ‘comply’. Whatever needs to be said should be said in an instructional way, with as little language as possible and then the teacher should allow time and possibly move away whilst it’s processed. Writing it down &/or using a drawing would also allow the student to fully process what you say. A very wise person once said to me, ‘Think dog!’ which seems like a strange thing to say. However, they explained that if you give instructions in the way that you would a dog, in short, simple language, this is easier to understand than if you use superfluous language.

Autism Awareness:

As educational professionals, we cannot assume that the students understand that they have autism or that they know what it means to them. For my team, when we have new students, we find that we often embark on a journey of discovery and enlightenment, with the student, when we start our Autism Awareness sessions. This time is used to investigate things that the student likes and dislikes, as well as discovering their strengths. A young person with autism won’t necessarily realise that what they think &/or feel is different to other people, so wouldn’t always know to say that this was something that they don’t like, especially in young children, when their expressive language is not as developed. By using sessions like these, along with sensory checklists, you can build up a better picture of how best to support the student but, more importantly, that student begins to understand their own thoughts and behaviours more, so strategies can be built and implemented. You can also use it to inform your one page profiles/student passports.

The use of things like the 1-5 emotion scale (Dunn Bauron) or Zones of Regulation (Kuypers) is a great way of teaching a student to recognise how they are feeling, be able to put it in perspective and then apply a strategy. Neurotypical people are generally able to regulate without thinking about it and will subconsciously put strategies into place to solve the problem. Again, this will often need explicit teaching for people with autism. This include students who have high-level language skills.

Safe Place:

Having a safe place is incredibly important, where the student can default to if there is an issue. Left to their own devices, students will find their own safe places and these will not necessarily be ideal; toilets, student services… home! If you can provide a place to go when things get too much, you are much more likely to keep your students calm and in school. It needs to be a place where pupils can be on their own and not disturbed until some time has passed. If it is an agreed place, you know that they are safe and won’t have to chase them around the school, which may exasperate the situation further, but can also watch from afar, without being in the student’s personal space. For example, in my previous setting, our students would come to the resource provision and sit or head straight into the sensory room. They knew that we wouldn’t pester them and they could begin the process of resetting. When we did open an dialogue, we would usually start with their basic needs by asking, ‘Would you like a drink of water?’. This exchange told us where the student was at, emotionally, without asking them anything about their feelings. If there was a positive response, it meant that they had started to reset and process things again. If the response was negative, which could be anything from shouting, swearing or ignoring, we knew that the student needed more time. By having a safe space and dealing with the situation correctly, you will find that less learning will be lost. You probably aren’t going to get the student back into the lesson, but they may be ready when the next lesson begins, or later that day. If you push too early or too quickly, this may result in a quick escalation which it not good for anyone.

Use Visuals!

This is something that I definitely underestimated as a professional, in my early days. The autistic brain finds processing language difficult, even when calm. If you present something visually, either in pictorial form (with made visuals or drawing a scenario) or simply writing it down, this is much easier for people with autism to be able to deal with. Visuals can be used for all sorts of things from timetables and social stories (Gray) to post-incident learning with comic strip conversations (Gray), to signalling appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. My team and I forever carry mini whiteboards and pens, as you never know when they might be useful: task sheets, instructions, preparing for change, drawings/words to show that a student is doing well, as well as comic strip conversations and social stories. 

Ask the student and be empathetic:

I know that this seems like an obvious thing to say, but it really does work. In my previous school, we made a video for Autism Awareness week, where we asked the students to tell the teachers things that they wanted them to know. We found out all sorts of things, that even we didn’t know, which has then made a difference. Again, if the student feels that they are being listened to, it will build trust and relationship with the adults supporting them. If you take the time to get to know the student, you will be able to spot potential situations/triggers, probably better than the person themselves.

If a student is unhappy or distressed by something, no matter how inconsequential or irrational it may seem to you, you need to demonstrate empathy when hearing it. In these situations, if the person feels genuinely listened to and empathised towards, you are much more likely to get a positive outcome, than if you dismiss it very quickly. Not only does it help achieve a good result for everyone, but it also builds your relationship as a useful person in the autistic person’s eyes. As a useful person, you will be someone that a student will turn to for help, meaning that you can help avert issues.


Building a positive relationship with parents/carers is essential. Taking the time to keep parents informed, will put their mind at ease and help build your relationships. If you have a good line of communication, it will work both ways. For example, it is really helpful to have communication from parents/carers in the morning, giving a heads up if a student hasn’t had a good night or morning. School can then implement strategies, to help that young person get to a place where they are ready for learning. Likewise, if the day at school hasn’t been great, the school can inform the parents so that they can help their child work through the issues. This is particularly successful when there isn’t blame or emotional language used, only factual information. It is worth remembering that a lot of parents have really had to fight to get their child the support that they have now and will, probably, have had their fingers burnt by unsympathetic professionals in the past. They will be highly sensitive, understandably, and if you are mindful of this, no matter how demanding they may seem to be, the relationship will work much better.

Parents and carers know their children well and you can utilise this. Ask them to contribute to the one-page profile and ask their advice about handling situations you’re not sure about. If you work as a team, they will be your biggest ally. Likewise, if parents and carers report about difficulties/meltdowns at home, please listen to them. If the child is masking, you may not see it at school initially.  because the child is masking and holding it together. The meltdowns at home won’t be because school handle things well and parents/carers don’t, but because the underlying issues are not being addressed or supported and the student can’t hold it in any longer. This will eventually spill into school and, by that time, things will escalate to crisis point quickly, so be proactive.

Communication within a team working with a student is also incredibly useful. My teams and I have always continuously messaged/spoken to each other, throughout the day, to ensure that everyone is fully up to speed. If a new TA is taking over, they won’t inadvertently cause a meltdown, as they are fully informed. Close communication like this, also allows us to tag team, when there is a student who is not responding. In meltdown situations, sometimes, regardless of anything that the TA has done, they can become associated with negative situation and just by being there, are causing more distress to the student. A new person can be enough to help break the cycle.


For those who have been in the profession a long time, nothing I have said above will be revolutionary. In fact, it is best practice across the board, a lot of the time, for students who are neurotypical, as well as those who have autism. It is because of that, that these strategies are ones that can easily be adapted to ‘mainstream’ schools, as well as those that are more specialised or who have Resource Provisions. The trick is to embed them and have autism training as standard within the school, for everyone. If settings are able to create an autistic-friendly setting, they will be facilitating their young people to be the best that they can, and to achieve great things.

How useful was this article?

Please click on a star to rate it

1 in 100 people have autism, and schools need to be prepared to support autistic students. Katie Goodwin, Assistant Headteacher at Abbey Hill School shares how austistic pupils can be better supported in mainstream classrooms.

Register FREE to access 2 more articles

We hope you’ve enjoyed your first article on GE Insights. To access 2 more articles for free, register now to join the Government Events community.

What you'll receive:
2 FREE articles/videos on GE Insights
Discounts to GE conferences and GovPD training courses
Latest events and training course updates
Fortnightly newsletters
Personalised homepage to save you time
Need unrestricted access to GE Insights Now?